Current Issue

Feb. 3, 2010

Vol. 110, No. 8


Word freaks

Constrained writing (and other puzzles) for unconstrained freshmen

By Merrell Noden ’78
Published in the February 3, 2010, issue

Ricardo Barros

The first written assignment in Lily Akerman ’13’s freshman seminar was to produce a piece of “constrained writing,” and Akerman tackled it with a fervor that could not be explained simply by the fact that she was a first-year student, eager to prove herself.  

“It kind of obsessed me,” she confesses.

Constrained writing is a literary form in which a restriction has been placed on word choice. Rhyme and meter are two very familiar forms of constraint. But there are many other, more abstruse constraints, such as banning the use of one or more letters (known as a lipogram) or requiring that every word begin with the same letter. This is a devilishly tricky thing to pull off, as you might imagine. It often yields writing we are more likely to marvel at than to enjoy.  

After some false starts, Akerman decided to present two sides of a love affair gone wrong, between Ed and Ida. Her constraint was that both accounts had to use the same letters, in precisely the same order, but punctuated and spaced differently to present two very different sides of the same story. Ida’s version begins: “I’d aimed it at Ed. He artfully escaped intense wounds. Able, I fired a red gun. ... ” Some 40 words later, she concludes, “I mused.” Ed, as you might imagine, offers a very different take on things: “Ida,” he began, “I meditated. Heart full, yes. Caped in tense, wound sable. ... ” He ends in a cri de coeur: “I’m used!” While there are points at which the demands of her constraint dilute meaning, Akerman’s piece mostly makes sense.  

“Really brilliant!” applauded Professor Joshua Katz,   and the students agreed, voting hers the best of their efforts. Akerman was flattered but self-deprecating: “To somebody who’s not into wordplay, it must all seem so ­ridiculous.”

But she’s in good company here. The seminar is called “Wordplay: A Wry Plod from Babel to Scrabble” (in case you missed it, “a wry plod” is an anagram for “wordplay”), which is a bit misleading. Wry it may be, but a plod it’s not. The 15 students lucky enough to get picked by Katz for this seminar play games like Boggle and Scrabble; trade puns, pangrams, and examples of onomatopoeia from English and many other languages, including text talk and old computer languages; and read and discuss celebrated examples of constrained writing such as Georges Pérec’s novel La Disparition (“The Disappearance”) — in which the thing that has disappeared is the letter “e” — as well as Gilbert Adair’s translation of it, A Void, which does the same thing, but in English.  

This might sound frivolous, but as Katz points out, it’s a very serious way to test and contemplate the limits of language, the relationship of form to content, and the way language works (or doesn’t). Says Katz, “By looking at things on a micro level and picking them apart in ways [students] don’t normally do, they get a new relationship with languages in general and, given the nature of what we’re doing, with English in particular.”

There’s a freewheeling, improvised quality to the proceedings, partly because most of this material isn’t part of any established curriculum. “I’m making things up because I’ve never taken a class on these things,” Katz admits. “So I’ve tried to gather a really smart group of people and see what happens.”

Here, almost anything goes. Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Simpsons are as likely to provide examples as venerated masters of wordplay like Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, or Vladimir Nabokov. In one early class Emilly Zhu ’13 assigned everyone an anagrammatized name. Gary Fox ’13 was lucky: He became “Foxy Rag.” Poor Professor Katz? To this bunch, he forever will be known as “Zak juts a ho.”  

While the seminar’s emphasis is unapologetically on the ludic side of things, it’s not just fun and games. Besides making several attempts at producing their own works of constrained writing, students also write a research paper on any subject involving wordplay. Gavin Schlissel ’13 was planning to write about how the accent in which a joke is told can alter its meaning and reception. This grew out of his own experiences during a year off in Germany where he made some killer jokes, only to have the locals assume, thanks to his American accent, that he was making clumsy mistakes. Rachel Chen ’13 focused on stand-up comedy, while Akerman was interested in portmanteau words, words blended together from other words, like ­“staycation” and “brunch.”

For a class in which everyone was instructed to bring in examples of wordplay from other languages, Amy Zhou ’13, who is teaching herself Finnish, brought a selection of Finnish tongue-twisters, palindromes, and a Finnish pangram (a sentence that uses all the letters in the alphabet, such as “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog”). The class convulsed with laughter when she told them the translation offered was “muckysnogger booty-call.” Students moved on to bad jokes in Korean, examples of onomatopoeia from various Asian languages, and a few playful phrases from Harry Potter. There even was a discussion of “flyting,” a kind of verbal duel from Norse sagas that often commenced with insults to the opponent’s mother.  

“Kind of like ‘Yo Mama,’ but in Icelandic,” said Foxy Rag.

Post Comments
2 Responses to Word freaks

Greg Arzoomanian '79 Says:

2010-03-11 09:10:29

"This grew out of his own experiences during a year off in Germany where he made some killer jokes"... one should be careful about killer jokes in German:

Michael Newman '13 Says:

2010-03-29 17:14:24

Hm, Elvish is hardly "silly."
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